This post is the first part of a short series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download Adan’s story here as a pdf.
This was the first story on the list, and I have to say I am not entirely sure how I feel about it. It’s creative, it’s interesting, it’s very original. It weaves the reader through senses and feelings in interesting ways. It’s also really, really weird. The story is about a narrator who has been suspended from his TSA job for “settling” on a mole on a passenger’s leg. But over the course of the story we find that this isn’t a one-off incident, but that he has an obsession with the so-called Lifebloom Gift.
Viewed as a story about obsession, about yearning, the story moves in interesting ways around the narrator and his friend, Ted Lifebloom. When the narrator meets Ted, he immediately begins to experience new feelings, expanded senses. “I thought I saw the universe in his eyes – the future and the past, and most of God’s holy best” for example. Or, when Ted rests his hand on the narrator’s shoulder and “I got carried into a greenish world I had only seen in dreams until then… It was a thing of the heavens.”
The heightening of the senses is something Ted brings about in the narrator, but Ted himself encounters the senses in a different way. He is tactile. When he was young, he clung to his mother. As an adult, he once asks to touch the narrator’s head to “reassure himself of my existence.” Ted himself says that “to experience something, one had to touch it. He denied the existence of anything he couldn’t touch, including air, the sun, the sky, the moon, and people he hadn’t touched.” But when he touched people, he brought about new feelings. As the narrator describes him – “Ted was love itself in human form.”
The obsession with this feeling, and with bringing about the feeling in others, leads the narrator and Ted to embark on a mission. They sneak into nursing home to find another potential “Lifebloomer.” They approach and overcome an old man, holding him down and touching his moles in an effort to awaken the Lifebloom Gift in him. The obsession with the Gift drives them to great lengths, but to no avail – he never calls the number they leave behind. This leads to Ted’s departure into the wild, and the narrator’s quest to find another Lifebloomer – a quest that leads him to a job and a firing at the TSA.
I agree with F.T. Kola that the story seems constrained by the workshop format (it was published in the Caine Prize anthology). There is a lot of potential in the story – a lot of things that could have been expanded and filled in. Instead, we have snippets – and snippets often work! but here I think the story could do more, could be more. At the same time, as a story about obsession deferred – a desire that never gets fulfilled – a story as short and incomplete as this works, in its own way. The yearning for more of the story is perhaps as close as one might get to the narrator’s hopes to feel.